Collective Bargain, the ILO and Australia

Collective Bargain, the ILO and Australia

I have chosen Collective Bargaining as the topic that I will discuss; I have chosen this topic because the right for employees to undertake collective bargaining has been under attack in various guises in Australia during the last decade or so. In addition, assisting workers in collective bargaining is central to my own role as a union organiser.

The most relevant convention is No.98, the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949. Australia ratified this convention on 28 Feb 1973, and it remains in force. This is relevant because the ILO sees collective bargaining as a fundamental right and a core labor standard, and has released a number of conventions that are directly related to the process and principles of collective bargaining. Supporting documents include the Collective Agreements Recommendation, 1951, the Labour Relations (Public Service) Convention, 1978 and the Collective Bargaining Convention, 1981.

There are a number of requirements set out on Convention No. 98. Firstly, collective bargaining covers all worker sand employers, with the exception of armed forces, police and public servants. In addition both bargaining partners (workers and employers) need to be independent and autonomous. Bargaining parters are required to have choice over the issues covered, but they an include terms and conditions of work and employment, relations between workers and employers and relations between workers organisations and employers organisations. In addition, the convention outlines the process for bargaining. These include the right to negotiate, the principle of negotiating in good faith, and how to settle disputes.

Within Australia, industrial relations are governed by the Fair Work Act (2009). The Fair Work Act recognises Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, but it does so in a limited way. The Fair Work Act limits collective bargaining to an enterprise level (in most circumstances). It also limits the scope and content of collective agreements. It also enables the fragmentation of bargaining units which undermines union representation.

In addition, employees only have limited rights to take protected industrial action. This means that industrial action can only be taken during bargaining periods, can only be in support of approved claims, can only be take after a ballot in with 50% of employees must vote, can only be taken with notice to the employer and can only be directed at the primary employer. These restrictions breach international labour standards. These differences mean that Australia is really only marginally compliant with Convention No. 98.

There have been a number of serious breaches of the convention in Australia. In 2009, the Communications, Electrical, Electronic, Energy, INofmration, Postla, Plumbing and Allied Services Union of Australia (CEPU) alleged that the Fair Work Act 2009 was not in conformity with Conventions Nos 87 and 98. These breaches include promoting enterprise level agreements, limiting the content of agreements, providing insufficient protections to union workers, limiting the right to organize and so on. By 2012, the committee of the ILO had made a number of recommendations about the Fair Work Act, including requesting that the Australian government either provide further information or review specific sections of the Act.

Another breach occurred in 2011. The New South Wales Government (a state government in Australia) introduced the Industrial Relations Amendment (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Act 2011. This denied NSW public sector workers the rights to collectively bargain for a wage increase above inflation and to secure basic entitlements like redundancy pay in the Ward. A complaint from a number of Australia trade unions was lodged with the ILO.